The Question of Faith

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, July 12, 2024

The question of faith—which is ultimately separable from the question of “religion”—is the single most important question that any person asks in and of her life, and that every life is an answer to this question, whether she has addressed it consciously or not.

—Christian Wiman, Zero at the Bone

During this election season, as concerns about the future of our democracy, horse-race pontificating, and ascendant Christian nationalism overwhelm the news and social media outlets and exacerbate anxiety and cynicism, I’ve been struggling to imagine what constructive role faith can play in the restoration of our democracy or, in the least, inspire a renewed trust in the promise of our democracy. I don’t have in mind the current caricature of faith displayed in the media or the imposed kind of faith in organized religion that sometimes stifles compassion and imagination. But a faith that is, as the author Christian Wiman describes, “a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to.” I’m not talking about deep, firm, or unshakable faith, but an aspirational faith that responds to the current climate, not in fear, anger, or despair, but with trustful imagination in God, good, or human nature.

Why do I assume that faith is the answer to the challenges facing our politics and democracy? Is it because my ministerial calling compels me to view these issues through the lens of faith? Or is it because I’ve seen people of faith, the activists and organizers who have courageously championed justice and beloved community, demonstrate that faith can transcend politics, ideology, and ambition? But the question of faith that we must answer goes beyond religion. There is a faith that fires the will to do better, be better, and know better, sometimes without religion. In the struggle to protect and secure our democracy, what is art or action without the fire of faith?

So far, I’ve tried to talk about faith in a nonsectarian, nontheistic way, referencing God in a way that doesn’t prescribe a doctrinal conception of faith. Perhaps before we can constructively engage the weaknesses and failures of our democracy, individually and collectively, we will have to confront the question of faith—what do we believe about ourselves, human nature, and the demos? I am a product of an aspirational faith in the Black religious tradition that kept hope alive for people experiencing racist oppression and domination. I recall hearing the older saints in the church of my youth singing, “Faith, faith, faith, just a little faith. You don’t need a whole lot; just use what you got.” Our faith was vindicated by seeing that God can work in and through us in our time of struggle, giving us new hope, new purpose, and new beginnings. Equipped with faith, we discovered that we could turn our failures into success; our barrenness could be transformed into fruitfulness; our scarcity could become abundance with God on our side. Hallelujah!

 

Darkness, Our Old Friend

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, July 5, 2024

“Personal redemption cannot take place apart from the redemption of our social structures . . . The gospel, then, is not a message about the salvation of individuals from the world, but news about a world transfigured, right down to its basic structures.”

Walter Wink, The Powers That Be

A few weeks ago, I received a call from a person who said that God led him to quit his job and travel around the country to give churches a message. He wanted to know if he could visit me to share the message. Years ago, I decided it was unhelpful to argue with people about their personal experience of what they consider divine revelation. So, I welcomed him and his wife at the appointed time, eager to hear the message. The man told me that humanity is facing a great darkness that needed the faithful to unite to counter. Yes, this made sense. I was thinking of Paul’s idea of the rulers and authorities, powers and principalities, and cosmic powers of darkness, the forces that reinforce the world’s greed, idolatry, and violence. But as the visitor continued to speak, I soon discovered the darkness to which he was referring was private, personal sins. According to him, it was more important for the faithful to police personal sin than to address the social, cultural, and economic failures that foment war, poverty, sickness, and division. He even dismissed our “Black Lives Matter” sign as a distraction.

However, the visitor’s idea of countering the darkness was more disappointing than his narrow conception of it. He did not reference love, service, justice, or neighborliness as the antidote to the forces of darkness. There was no vision of a transformed world in which God’s covenantal promises of shalom (peace) and unconditional hesed (loving-kindness) are made tangible and relevant for the whole creation. Instead, he talked about putting on “the armor of God” and leaned into the martial images of fighting an enemy, who just happened to be those whose religious understanding was not like his.

Darkness is a familiar presence, but we cannot counter its impact by solely focusing on the personal faults of those we dislike, misunderstand, or look down upon. The world has convinced us that working together for the common good is impossible, that creating a united and loving community is just a fantasy, and that we can never truly experience lasting peace. Many of us go through life with our guard up, distrusting the people and institutions in our communities and always protecting ourselves from what we see as a jaded, threatening world. Sometimes, even unconsciously, we communicate that we are not entirely convinced that love and peace are attainable and that self-protection is the only way to respond. But our greatest asset is love. We can be empathetic, empowered, peaceful, and loving people. Darkness doesn’t stand a chance against us when we unite in love to make change.

 

Graced and Varied Lives

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, June 28, 2024

“Grace to be born and live as variously as possible”

—Frank O’Hara

This week marks the ninth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s historic decision to legalize same-sex marriage in the Obergefell v. Hodges case. As Pride Month concludes, we also remember the Stonewall Rebellion 55 years ago. The three-day protests and demonstrations by LGBTQ people against police violence and repression inspired the annual pride parades and festivals that we celebrate today. Both of these events, though separated by time, are significant landmarks in the history of LGBTQ rights, explicitly affirming and recognizing the lives, worth, and dignity of LGBTQ people. Despite the current backlash against the LGBTQ community, with the American Civil Liberties Union tracking 523 anti-gay bills aimed at rolling back gains, especially for transgender individuals, Pride provides an opportunity for LGBTQ people and their families, friends, and allies to publicly reaffirm the right to life and dignity of those of different sexualities and gender expressions.

Pride celebrations have evolved into a vibrant testament of LGBTQ lives, loves, concerns, and interests, free from the political struggles over their inclusion in cultural, familial, and religious institutions. Amidst the diversity of opinions, lifestyles, and expressions on display, which reflect non-traditional gender presentation and romantic relationships, a singular theme and aspiration emerge—the worth and dignity of LGBTQ individuals. Frank O’Hara, the prolific gay poet, who championed living boldly and unapologetically but did not live to see the public, intentional, and explicit assertion of LGBTQ rights, articulated this belief in his poem “In Memory of My Feelings.” He envisioned the “grace to be born and live as variously as possible,” a sentiment now etched on his gravestone. With Pride, we embrace the desire to lead lives that are graced and varied, without the fear of having to suppress any part of ourselves that doesn’t conform to traditional expectations.

My faith is strengthened when I think of God’s amazing grace toward LGBTQ people. I was drawn to Jesus because his life, ministry, and relationships embodied radical inclusion. Throughout the Gospels, many faithful resented Jesus for failing to reflect and reinforce their expectations of how a rabbi should act and with whom he should associate. Many more conservative traditions in our time would say Jesus was not so radically hospitable. Some ignore his boundary-breaking engagement with people on the margins. Others stretch the meaning of the text to make Jesus more muscular and masculine according to today’s cultural images, making it hard to see his love and tenderness toward the Other. Yet, we marvel at the grace to be born and celebrate it as a gift. It allows us the freedom to construct lives and communities of meaning, beauty, and belovedness in all its diversity, possibility, and colorfulness, where the worth and dignity of every human being are honored, affirmed, and celebrated. Happy Pride.

 

The Witness of Freedom

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, June 21, 2024

Escaping to freedom, purchasing one’s own freedom or that of a loved one, fighting for freedom, offering up one’s own body for the life and freedom of another and dying for freedom were acts of redemption that aimed to restore black bodily and psychic integrity.

—M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom

Last week marked the third year my family officially observed the Juneteenth federal holiday. Although we have attended parades and community events celebrating the holiday, we continue to consider the traditions and practices we want to create to observe it. Recently, I’ve been thinking about what it must have been like to hear the news of freedom from bondage, to experience that dramatic change in your status with the stroke of a pen or a notice from a commanding officer. Although Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the enslaved in the Confederate South, the rebels and enslavers hid, denied, and withheld that promised freedom for as long as they could. Yet, the yearning for freedom never abated. How do we honor that moment presently? How do we define freedom in a way that universalizes the aspiration of the formerly enslaved as a model for the liberation of the oppressed today? How do we witness a freedom that is more than a license to get rich or powerful or to act without restraint?

The meaning and practice of freedom in a nation that was once a slavocracy remains a contentious and complex issue, engaging scholars, theologians, and activists alike. Theologian James Cone lamented the fact that the nation still bears the mark of founders who “defined their ‘freedom’ in terms of slavery of others.” In Letter from Birmingham Jail, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that “the goal of America is freedom,” a goal hindered by the persistent denial of the guarantee of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to Black people. King also preached during the Montgomery bus boycott that “God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race.” M. Shawn Copeland expands the transformative potential discovered in the quest for freedom, viewing all endeavors and actions to liberate as redemptive.

Our sacred writings offer some guidance on the concept of freedom. When God liberated Israel from bondage in Egypt, that divine gift of freedom also bestowed upon them the responsibility of service, compassion, and justice. Their freedom was not just a license to pursue individual desires but a model and an invitation to a beloved community that acknowledged its origins and pledged to treat others with the same kindness and justice God had shown them. The freedom they lived and practiced was not an individualistic endeavor that simply allowed them to do as they pleased as long as they didn’t infringe on the freedom of others. Perhaps Juneteenth can be an opportunity to re-cast and redefine freedom in more communal, redemptive ways, making freedom a gift that keeps giving. May it be so.

 

It Can Be Hard to Keep Track

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, June 14, 2024

I am finding it harder and harder to keep track
of the new gods and the new loves,
and the old gods and the old loves,
and the days have daggers, and the mirrors motives,
and the planet’s turning faster and faster in the blackness.

—Christian Wiman, “All My Friends are Finding New Beliefs”

Recently, I have confessed to friends how frustrating and dissatisfying I find social media. Perhaps the too-muchness of everything—the clickbait headlines, the conspiracy theories, the overwhelming number of movements and justice issues, the celebrity culture, and the fads, trends, and products—makes it hard to track what’s going on and keep steady amid so much change. But the dissatisfaction should come as no surprise, as researchers have consistently demonstrated the connection between social media use and increases in anxiety, depression, loneliness, and fear of missing out. However, short of those outcomes, there appears to be an impact on something more fundamental, like how we talk to each other, how we see others who are different from us, our grace toward and willingness to approach difference and the unfamiliar with curiosity. When does the dissatisfaction turn into feelings of threat?

The poet Christian Wiman explores how his friends’ interests, habits, and beliefs have changed as they’ve aged instead of focusing on the anxiety-inducing chaos of social media. But his experience feels like what the virtual world does to many of us. He honestly confronts the difficulty of understanding “the new gods and new loves, and the old gods and old loves” that his friends have embraced. Despite feeling threatened by his friends’ growing, unfamiliar preoccupations, his friendships endure. Amid the days that feel like daggers and mirrors that seem to have motives, a frightening, diabolically menacing strangeness to him, his love for “my friends, my beautiful, credible friends” remains. Perhaps the key to coping with the whirlwind of change and distraction is to love more deeply and compassionately and to resist letting the noise, junk, ideologies, conspiracies, and propaganda damage our connections, relationships, and community.

Yet, as we navigate the digital landscape, we are also increasingly confronted with the reality of mortality. Our exposure to constant news about war, death, and violence is a profound reminder of our human finitude—a concept that social media often obscures with its steady stream of updates and distractions. This continuous stream of information distracts us from reflecting on making the most of our time with family, friends, and loved ones. Keeping track of everything happening so quickly is challenging, but we can stay connected. We can sharpen our vision to see humanity striving, hoping, and reaching out amidst the chaos. We can help ourselves weather and combat anxiety, depression, loneliness, and the fear of missing out by allowing ourselves to be loved, held, and seen by others. May it be so.

Covenant, Solidarity, and Neighborliness

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, June 7, 2024

The great crisis among us is the crisis of ‘the common good,’ the sense of community solidarity that binds all in a common destiny—haves and have-nots, the rich and the poor.

—Walter Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good

Since the burst of gun violence erupted in the neighborhood around our church last week, I’ve been thinking about how vulnerable all of us in the area became at that moment. Our differences in race, income, religion, ethnicity, and any other identity or characteristic provided no advantage to anyone over another when a shooter and the police called to restore safety traded gunfire. While I was proud to hear how quickly our staff and security personnel acted to protect those in our building, I thought of everyone living near us, in the homes and apartments, and working in the shops and buildings. How are they doing? How are we doing in our show of neighborliness? How can the covenant that binds us together as a beloved community inspire a spirit of solidarity and covenant with those around us?

Those questions of covenant, solidarity, and neighborliness take on a new urgency given the current safety challenges in our city. As we close out another program year, our Board of Outreach, Reimagining Community Safety Committee, and Campus Task Force 2.0 continue to plan, organize, and imagine how to address them. And yet, I wonder if we can get to the crux of the matter that presses on us as a church in the public square, to what being in relationship with God and following the way with Jesus requires of us in the face of the fear, poverty, division, and violence those who call this neighborhood home are feeling. I wonder, because when people talk about church or religion, I suspect the church’s penchant for rules, creeds, regulations, and traditions says more about us than our acts of neighborliness.

Our commitment to naming and condemning violence and atrocities against vulnerable people has been unwavering. However, it’s crucial to remember that our actions, our gatherings, our organization, and our treatment of our neighbors all stem from our call to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The theologian Walter Brueggemann powerfully argues that the project of the faithful, both biblically and spiritually, is the “insistence that power in the community must be deployed differently in order to have a neighborhood.” The writer Farah Jasmine Griffin poses a thought-provoking question, “How do we treat each other? Do we mirror and echo the values of the larger society or do we live by an alternative set of values?” These perspectives should not only provoke but also inspire us to pay closer attention to what is happening around us and to bring our best ideas, abundant resources, and moral imagination to bear in securing the common good for this neighborhood.

 

The Ongoing Need for Pride

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, May 31, 2024

The desire to be acknowledged and included is seen as pathological, while the destructive exclusion of people’s lives become the definition of reasonable.

—Sarah Schulman, Ties That Bind

The month of June is LGBTQ Pride Month, an annual commemoration of the gay liberation protests in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in NYC and a celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender visibility, dignity, and equality. As LGBTQ people and their allies prepare to participate in parades, festivals, rallies, and concerts, social media and news outlets will feature messages asking why there must be Pride celebrations. Despite the progress that LGBTQ people have made, mainly since the Supreme Court affirmed marriage equality for same-sex couples, the need for LGBTQ visibility and advocacy has grown more critical. In recent years, an effective, persistent backlash against LGBTQ people has gained ground. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is tracking 515 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatures. In 2023, several states enacted laws prohibiting transgender athletes from participating in school sports and banning gender-affirming care for minors.

LGBTQ Pride has been a powerful tool for advocating for the recognition of the humanity and dignity of LGBTQ people and their full inclusion in political, religious, and cultural spheres. For a long time, there was a consensus to exclude LGBTQ people, with the unquestioned belief that they should be marginalized in society without legal, cultural, and religious rights and privileges. Pride disrupts this consensus and demands that legal, political, and governmental institutions recognize our right to equal protection under the law and take a stand against any form of violence, rejection, and discrimination. When we gather for Pride celebrations, we combat the consensus for exclusion through beloved community where the lies told about us, the laws used against us, and the weapons aimed against us lose their power.

Unfortunately, as news of the backlash continues to flood the airwaves and computer screens, I have become reacquainted with the power of lament even as I anticipate Pride celebrations. How long do we have to endure the insults, the attacks, the hatred, the political campaigns to strip us of equality under the law? How long must we bear the hate crimes committed against us? How long must we grieve the terror visited upon us, especially our trans and gender non-conforming siblings? With Pride, I hear the echo of “not long.” Pride allows us to show the power of love, to show off our coats of many colors, literally and figuratively, revealing our richness and diversity in the symbol of the rainbow. We claim the right and privilege to share our dream of a world filled with singing, dancing, affirmation, and celebration of all God’s children. Love will win over all attempts to afflict, persecute, or strike us down. Love will make the case for us in a world too mired in hate and violence to notice. Show love. Show Pride.

 

Where’s the Good News?

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, May 10, 2024

What I need first of all is not exhortation, but a gospel.

—J. Gresham Machen

The long-awaited day of spring I had been coveting had finally arrived. It was the first day I could walk for an extended time without a jacket and warm enough to produce some sweat. The sights and sounds of a warm Minnesota day greeted me—the screech of young peoples’ sneakers on the basketball court, neighbors walking their dogs who can sense the change in the season, and music coming from cars whose drivers feel more comfortable with the outdoor breeze cooling them than air conditioning. Just as I settled into the rhythm of my steps and the voices of podcasters coming through my earphones, I could hear someone speaking (or screaming) loudly, trying to get my attention. I turned around to see a middle-aged man, shabbily dressed but smiling. He doesn’t speak but hands me a piece of paper and turns around.

The man had given me a religious tract. A little larger than an index card, the tract was a comic featuring what looks to be a Black man and woman in the first panel, which also includes the tract’s title: “How to Get to Heaven.” The man and woman face a golden path leading to a golden castle nestled in the clouds. The tract quotes carefully selected, abridged scripture texts warning about sin and hell as punishment for sin. It also featured a substitutionary atonement lens on the crucifixion and resurrection to explain how one can escape the fires of hell, declaring that Jesus’ death paid for our trip to heaven. With a message simple enough to be grasped even with a cursory glance, I immediately despaired that there was no good news—just a focus on doom, judgment, and punishment. Did the man believe this? Perhaps he was making a little extra money passing out the tracts. Does such a message still work?

I know many religions still rely on myths and monsters to create meaning, order, and control out of a chaotic, frightening culture distorted by poverty, violence, materialism, and individualism. For a long time, this was the only message I heard. I cannot recall hearing what can be described as good news in the church I grew up in. Yes, church folks talked a lot about Jesus, his birth, and his death, but the news I heard most often articulated was how disappointingly sinful we were, underserving of so good and perfect a savior. I don’t think I heard the good news of Jesus Christ, love incarnated and grace unlimited no matter who we are or how much we fall short, until my thirties when I returned to church after many years of estrangement. Where are the tracts highlighting God’s love, grace, and mercy as sources of hope and beloved community? What’s the message of our faith? I pray it’s good news.

 

Progress Changes Things

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, May 3, 2024

That everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure.

—Rebecca Solnit

On several occasions in the last couple of years, I have heard friends, commentators, and scholars lament that the political project of federal and state governments since 2016 has been stripping away rights, including fundamental rights of a functioning democracy. My reaction to that observation has alternated between academic detachment to low simmering anxiety to outright panic. Have we abandoned the effort to expand the blessings of liberty for all? The ending of federal protections for women’s right to abortion, the passage of 84 anti-LGBT laws in states across the country, enacting laws to make it harder to vote, drastically limiting access to asylum at the southern border, and the passage of laws to restrict and criminalize the right to protest all point to retreat from an expansion of our democracy to protect those at risk of being excluded because of who they are.

Responding to the concern about backlash and stalled progress in pursuing justice, the writer and historian Rebecca Solnit cautioned us, “That everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure.” Our progress has power and promise amid backlash, resistance, and regression. Progress in rights, dignity, and status for women, Black people, and LGBT people occurred due to the power of ideas and “the transformation of imagination” that invited people to see the humanity of those once deemed less than, leading to changes in law, politics, and culture. That doesn’t mean later generations or newly empowered opponents of human rights for vulnerable others won’t retreat from those hard-won gains. It does mean that the work of justice continues.

The biblical readings in the common lectionary for this Easter season include stories about the journey the followers of Jesus took to build a church in the aftermath of his crucifixion and resurrection. As their numbers and influence increased, they endured continued oppression and violence. An observer of their experience could choose among many events, actions, and responses to make the case that the movement was succeeding or failing. And yet, as Solnit rightly maintains, it would be a mistake to assume that “the history of change and transformation is a linear path.” Jesus’ followers never toppled Caesar to impose God’s reign. Instead, their living out the meaning of God’s reign in their lives and communities disrupted the status quo of oppression and domination. Everything changed. Perhaps taking away rights granted and secured over the last 50 years means we’ve hit that part on the road of progress where gridlock and alternative directions seek to divert us. But we won’t turn back from the work of justice and liberation. The power of our progress in expanding rights has changed much in the world. Progress isn’t completion, but it does mean change.

Trying to Save this Nation’s Soul

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, April 26, 2024

When will I see an end to destruction and woe
And how will I see no division in my life
There comes a time to make amends
Never too late to try again
To save our soul

—Clannad, “Anam”

In recent years, amid the coarsening of our discourse, the rise of political radicalization, and the deepening social and religious chasm in our communities, politicians, pundits, and thinkers have talked more about the need to save our nation’s soul. I’ve gone from a bemused agnosticism about the notion of the state having a soul to an academic, philosophical reflection on what it means to think of our nation as exhibiting the characteristics of a healthy soul. Assuming the Platonic idea that a nation, just like an individual, must find the appropriate balance between self-control, wisdom, and courage, I am hard-pressed not to conclude that our country has already lost its soul.

But, I understand the appeal of using the soul analogy to reflect upon the nation’s core purpose, promise, and possibility. However, when I consider our nation’s history, including the massacre of indigenous people, the enslavement and legal oppression of Black people, and the visceral resistance to a generous provision of a social safety net for the most vulnerable, our nation’s soul has been weary and battered long before our current circumstances. And yet, even though this talk of our nation’s soul remains undefined and nebulous, I admit that the language of a national soul and the desire to save it sound familiar to me. I see it in the oracles of the Hebrew prophets who called Israel to awaken and tend to her spiritual essence, promising that God would create a new heart and new spirit in the people if Israel returned to faithfulness. The prophetic challenge to Israel was hopeful: her soul could be saved.

Perhaps reflection on the nation’s soul remains helpful and necessary given our current social, political, and economic malaise and disorientation. Abraham Lincoln and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called citizens to reckon with the nation’s breaking soul during their times, reminding us during the Civil War and with civil disobedience that our nation’s purpose, promise, and prospects were always savable and worthy of saving. More important than any certainty about the meaning of a nation’s soul is the more powerful assurance that it is not too late to save it. I found inspiration for this from the Irish band Clannad. In their song “Anam,” which means “soul,” they sing that it is “never too late to try again to save our soul.” We can keep trying to perfect this union. We can commit to creating a nation that keeps faith with its people through self-control, wisdom, and courage. The prophets invited Israel to keep trying, as did Lincoln and King with Americans. It’s never too late to try again and keep trying to save our soul.